Allan Metcalf at Lingua Franca writes about a publication I may just have to shell out for:

This week something rare, old fashioned, scholarly, and entertaining arrived via the U.S. Postal Service. As usual, I’m postponing other tasks until I have read it cover to cover. It’s a journal you’ve probably never heard of: Comments on Etymology. Rare I call it, because the journal has very few subscribers. And old fashioned, because it’s only on paper. It’s not available on the Internet.
For more than four decades, Comments on Etymology has been one of the least known and most enjoyable scholarly journals in the field of linguistics. And it’s the No. 1 source for the study of American slang. […] What makes the journal so entertaining is, first of all, copious quotations from original sources, and second, lively discussions of the evidence, often leading to revised explanations. That’s because, in the words of Editor Gerald Cohen in a recent issue:
Comments on Etymology … is a series of working papers, a sort of etymological workshop where ideas can be tested and developed (with valuable feedback provided) before being presented formally to the scholarly community.” […]
It’s a rare publication indeed. You’re unlikely to find Comments on Etymology in your university library or on a colleague’s bookshelf. Cohen explains, “The number of subscribers is very low, primarily because I haven’t publicized the publication and have been content to mail the issues to whoever is interested.” But he adds, “If a few new subscribers come along, they will be very welcome.”

It’s $16 for eight issues a year; if you’re interested, send a check to Gerald Cohen at the address given at the link.

Totally unrelated: The Economist‘s style guide is now online. Thanks, Paul!


  1. “content to mail the issues to whoever is interested”: whomever?

  2. I will not go so far as to say whomever is wrong, not yet.

  3. I hope I haven’t already told about the cartoon I remember from The New Yorker in the ’60s. It showed the interior of an antique shop, drawn with shadows and wiggly lines to make it look old-fashioned, but expensive. All very subdued, cobwebbed and superior.
    A woman customer, having selected something to buy, stands at the sales counter, behind which a saleswoman is wrapping the purchase. The customer has her checkbook in her hand, pen poised. She is saying: “And who shall I make this check out toom ?”

  4. My grandmother once said ‘Who tomb?’ by mistake.

  5. “content to mail the issues to whoever is interested”: whomever?
    To which John Cowan replies:
    I will not go so far as to say whomever is wrong, not yet.
    John, please explain. Traditional grammarians would allow only whoever in that sentence. So what are you saying, exactly?
    (Huddleston and Pullum are strangely accepting of either, in their version of what purports to be a purely descriptive grammar, though it often slips into judgements that I would consider prescriptive by marking certain less accepted constructions as “ungrammatical”. I suspect that their judgement here results from an effort to avoid such a slip.)

  6. Noetica, it was a joke.

  7. A joke, John? Somewhat too arch for me to untwist. Especially given that H&P say that either is grammatical. You would take issue with them I trust? And with our major Australian broadsheets that actively change such a whoever to whomever, in copy originating from the US?

  8. I have no idea which is grammatical. There’s a “to” implying that the who-word should be in the dative, but there’s also a verb of which it is the subject, implying that it should be in the nominative. So: beats me. Of course, what I’d really like to see is a good old “whomsoever” because that always makes me smile.

  9. If we’d just stayed with Old English, this wouldn’t be a problem.

  10. dearieme: It’s like a blivet (I didn’t know that word until I googled “optical illusion three rods”), isn’t it? If you just look at one end of the sentence it wants “whomever” and if you just look at the other end it wants “whoever”, and if you look at both ends at once it wants both or neither.

  11. Schrödinger’s pronoun.

  12. Blivet ornot, who[m]ever has been mooted at least twice before, across the benches of this very meadhall. In 2007 (with dearieme in attendance, asking a similar question and getting a similar answer) and in 2010 (when I expatiated and Ø was distinguished by his nowise-null contributions, as now).
    Now look here:
    Ah they have wrought me heavy
    and great of limb –
    she is slender of waist,
    slight of breast, made of many fashions;
    they have set her small feet
    on many a plinth;
    she they have known,
    she they have spoken with,
    she they have smiled upon,
    she they have caught
    and flattered with praise and gifts.
    (“Demeter“, Hilda Doolittle)
    If the latter part is a series of normal independent clauses in parataxis, these are simple alterations of order, so we might “correct” the author: “her they have spoken with, her they have smiled upon”, and so on. After all, we would say: “they have spoken with her, they have smiled upon her”.
    But the latter part might instead be read as a series of noun phrases with omission of a relative whom (or possibly that): “she whom they have spoken with, she whom they have smiled upon”.
    Hmm. Then consider this:
    She I love best is coming.
    Should we be as happy with “Her I love best is coming”? I would not. Here a relative whom or that is plainly omitted, and she is the subject of is coming.
    So with whomever and whoever (whom and who), quite often. We have lost a sense of these things is all. This many a decade.
    I leave this simpler case as an exercise for analysis:
    It was she they first called.
    Schrödinger’s catalyst for conversation. Or not.

  13. I should say that the omission theory is correct, and that the omitted word (not technically a relative-clause introducer) is that. I can’t see h.d. making an elementary error in grammar.
    As for Her I love best is coming, it is impossible because come is intransitive: no object pronoun has any business in a clause governed by it.
    And as for whomever, I would (given the power to do so) change it to whoever in all cases whatsoever, and whom in almost all, leaving the latter intact only immediately following prepositions and the preposition-like word than. The late Bill Safire summed up this position as “I favor whom‘s doom.” But I will not say that those who use either whom elsewhere or whomever in whatever position are outright wrong.

  14. Having now read both 2007 and 2010, I see that this is/was John Emerson’s position.

  15. John Cowan:
    1. I should say that the omission theory is correct, and that the omitted word (not technically a relative-clause introducer) is that.
    I called the omitted word a relative. H&P (at pp. 1033ff.) certainly want it to be a relative word that introduces a clause, given this example:

    I agree with most of the things that your father was saying. (p. 1033)

    (H&P: “… the relative clause that your father was saying“.)
    Compare, from the Doolittle text:

    she [whom OR that] they have caught / and flattered with praise and gifts

    So what would you call the omitted word? (I approve of your approving of that, by the way.)
    2. I can’t see h.d. making an elementary error in grammar.
    An error, sayst? A cowan then thou wert, among true-thinking descryptyvystes. The syntax in the stanza that precedes is wonderfully and accurately archaic:
    Useless to me who plant
    wide feet on a mighty plinth,
    useless to me who sit,
    wide of shoulder, great of thigh,
    heavy in gold, to press
    gold back against solid
    back of the marble seat:
    useless the dragons wrought on the arms,
    useless the poppy-buds and the gold inset
    of the spray of wheat.
    (Wonderful? Depends on your taste and your appreciation of the lost arts.) “Useless to me who plant” indeed. Anyway, like the stanza already cited, this one is a single sentence. But note: this one is not a standard grammatical sentence. Where is its main finite verb? Non invenietis. Much of its reiterative and elliptical structure is very like the parsing that you reject for the second half of that other stanza (as an “error” unlikely in Doolittle).
    3. As for Her I love best is coming, it is impossible because come is intransitive: no object pronoun has any business in a clause governed by it.
    But that simply begs the question (qv. chez Hat) about the case of the pronoun. Of course I should have said above that she I love best in toto is the subject of is coming. But it is open for someone else to say that her I love best is the subject. That‘s what the sort of thing that is disputed, with these who[m]ever cases.
    4. And as for whomever, I would (given the power to do so) change it to whoever and whom in almost all, …

    But that is to conflate two questions that I teased painstakingly apart in 2010 (search there for my typo-marred “too distinct questions”). The issue here (the interesting question!) is in what situation the whom- forms are usable according to traditional grammatical notions, not the modern preference for stylistically motivated reductions to who- forms.

  16. Modern English is unique, as far as I know, in that the nominative case is used only when directly powering a verb. “Her that I love best is coming” sounds more idiomatic to me. But in talking about a lover, all the connotations brought up by the beloved’s pronoun might cause you to lose your train of thought and forget to finish your sentence, making “she” the correct form. There is something reverential about the nominative.
    The objective is generally used in compounds too, as in “himself,” which is why I submit “him and me” and “whomever” as compound nouns should be used in all cases.
    I have a wealthy uncle who invites me to “visit my wife and I.”

  17. Noetica:
    0. Sidebar: six years since you said that critical reasoning was not a sensible expression, for there is no other kind. Yet can we not contrast critical with dogmatic reasoning?
    1. H&P is not on hand, so I’ll take your word for it.
    2a. An error? Certes. A proper descryptyvyste calls something an error when, if the speaker/writer’s attention were to be called to it, their response would be “Oops.” If I use he to refer to a definite individual that I know is female, it’s an error. Similarly, I write pronounciation from time to time not because I am using a non-standard dialect, but because I type pronounce more often than pronunciation and am led into temptation (by my fingers) rather than being delivered from evil.
    2b. I’m not certain how to parse the unless-stanza, though the missing verbs are plainly forms of be: I say verbs because I reckon the stanza as containing four separate sentences, except typographically. At first I read the first as “[It is] useless to [me who plant wide feet on a mighty plinth], where it is an anaphor for something that appears earlier in the poem, and with an archaic subjunctive in the relative clause. But on investigation I can find no such use of the subjunctive. So now I think the archaism is the use of who as a fused relative in the first two sentences, as in Who steals my purse steals trash. In that case, the first sentence is to be read as “[Those] who plant wide feet on a mighty plinth [are] useless to me”, which has the advantage of making all four sentences parallel. (Note that whoever would not do here, as it is firmly singular.)
    3. It’s not appropriate to compare the usage of Form 1 (historic nominative) and Form 2 (historic dative/accusative) personal pronouns with the Form 1 and Form 2 relative pronouns: see sections 2-4 of Zwicky 2007. Though they began closely related, they have evolved in opposing directions over the last few centuries.
    4. The system I use, which is what Zwicky calls the Standard System in his section 5 except that it eliminates whomever (but not whom) even as the object of a preposition), is not stylistic but grammatical. For me, Who did you say they saw? is not a stylistic choice but the only available choice: for me, Whom did you say they saw? is not grammatical, any more than England has not been defeated since 1066, but England have been defeated regularly is. So for me, your Q2 (of 2010) is a merely historical inquiry to which the answer is “Use Form 1 or Form 2 according to the case relations in the embedded (not the matrix) clause”, and your Q1, if it means “Should the whom-forms be used?” is mis-posed: it should be “Can the whom-forms be used?”, and the answer is “no”, exceptis excipiendis.
    Joe R.: See my point 3 above: who/whom does not follow the pattern of he/him any more.

  18. Speaking of small distribution journals-
    Back in the day, Richard Mitchell gave us The Underground Grammarian. Eight pages of language curmudgeonness every month from 1977 to 1991, each letter of it set by hand as Gutenberg intended, the text composed as Mitchell went along. The content (and links for his books) is now available on the internet to console prescriptivists.
    But, you know, reading on the internet just isn’t the same as the hardcopy job as was, and his particular POV really needs the analogue touch.

  19. dearieme says

    I remember at school the ructions caused by explanations turning on “XYZ is implied”. Sir, sir, sir, who implied it? Sir, sir, sir, what if I don’t want to imply it? Sir, sir, sir, isn’t that just a cheat? Sir, sir, sir, we don’t do that in Latin or French. Sir, sir,sir, did the writer imply it or did you infer it?
    Particle or wave? Whatever! Or “whatsoever”, which I shall henceforth adopt.

  20. John Cowan:
    0. You offer a sidebar to a sidebar? Well, a sidebar to that: in the assumed domain, reasoning is essentially critical in that it judges among doxastic options. In different domains distinctions can indeed be made: dogmatic reasoning, empirical reasoning, axiomatic reasoning, Presbyterian reasoning, critical reasoning. So?
    1. H&P is on hand here, so do take my word about it (or them). But you do not answer my question:

    So what would you call the omitted word?

    2a. You write:

    A proper descryptyvyste calls something an error when, if the speaker/writer’s attention were to be called to it, their response would be “Oops.”

    A neat formulation. But is it an apt, sufficient, and undisputed characterisation of desecrypticism? If it is, then H&P are not themselves proper deskwrittivists (a conclusion that I for one would endorse, anyway). Remember that the context was given by this statement of yours:

    I can’t see h.d. making an elementary error in grammar.

    This appears to take the “grammar” of a language as something unitary, universal for that language, discoverable, and categorically distinct from any system of stylistic preferences of a user of the language – so that Doolittle would (or at least should) have the same take on it as you. What do you make of later musicasters “correcting” Bach? Or of those who flit among the ruins “emending” Shakespeare’s language? I cannot easily imagine either master responding with “Oops!” to them. I can imagine them saying, if they were moved to politeness: “Ah well, your style and mine are different.” (Handel or Johnson? Never so polite.)
    2b. You write:

    At first I read the first as “[It is] useless to [me who plant wide feet on a mighty plinth], where it is an anaphor for something that appears earlier in the poem, and with an archaic subjunctive in the relative clause. But on investigation I can find no such use of the subjunctive.

    It surprises me that you should bring the subjunctive in at all. Why think to have any recourse to it? I say that your first reading is quite right (though there is no need to expect the it to be anaphoric in a strict sense). Voyons:

    [It is] useless to you who are on a plinth
    Useless to her who is on a plinth
    Useless to those on a plinth
    Useless to those who are on a plinth
    Useless to us who are on a plinth
    Useless to me who am on a plinth
    Useless to her who plants wide feet on a mighty plinth
    Useless to me who plant wide feet on a mighty plinth

    All “grammatical” (with who taken as anaphoric to the preceding pronoun), by your lights? I hope so! By mine they all are. And not a subjunctive in sight. Given this plain grammaticality, especially for this author writing in this vein, there is no need for the alternative reading you move to next. I reject it as quite artificial. Consider also that a comma or similar mark would be almost de rigueur, with are not used:

    Useless to me, [those] who plant wide feet on a mighty plinth

    You write:

    Note that whoever would not do here, as it is firmly singular.

    Do you mean that the word is always singular? That’s wrong, of course. Do you mean that the word is firmly singular in the present case? But it is not even used in the present case. Is your it anaphoric to something other than whoever? Then please explain.
    3. That just continues the question-begging, with justification from a question-begging and indeed persecureptivist piece by Zwicky. He says, for example, that one cannot grammatically query this statement with “Whom?”:

    I saw someone interesting yesterday.

    And that one cannot grammatically answer this question with “He”:

    Who did it, Brad or Janet?

    Zwicky’s ratio decidendi: “This is just a fact of life.” Who says? The asterisked responses are available stylistic choices, and it is presumptuous to proscribe them with so little semblance of argument, in the manner of a poorscriptatavist, as ungrammatical.
    4. Ditto.

  21. 0. The critical path alone may be open to us, but many people seem to feel quite differently.
    1. I was under the impression that H&P says that that, though it can introduce a relative clause, is not thereby a relative pronoun, contrary to pre-modern grammatical descriptions. But I may be quite mistaken.
    2a. I am far from claiming that the grammar of English is completely known, or even that it is completely knowable within the restrictions of human lifetimes. But I will assert that the (descriptive, not normative) rule that she is not used as an object pronoun is a part of English grammar that is well established. Therefore she they have known simply cannot mean they have known her in this poem.
    Indeed, there are people who would write she they have known in that very sense, but that is because they don’t fully control the poetic style they are trying to use: h.d. would not be one of those.
    But you continue to talk of style where I want to talk of grammar. If you translate Shakespeare into contemporary English, you are using a different grammar from his, and if he heard it, he would not say “Oops!” but rather “Call you that Englisshe? Fie!” But that would just be his unavoidable ignorance of how the language would develop in the next few centuries. The Augustans thought of Chaucer as a crude writer, a beginner at English verse, because they had not yet grasped that English grammar, not merely English style, had changed radically since his time.
    2b. Indeed, it seems to me that our different readings of the useless-sentences arise because we have slightly different grammars. You write as an example me who am on a plinth, but for me that would have to be me who is on a plinth, not merely as a stylistic choice. So for me to get the first reading, the text would have to be Useless to me who plants wide feet on a mighty plinth.
    Since h.d. didn’t write that, I first looked for the subjunctive (which uses the plain form with 3sg agreement instead of the normal 3sg form) and not finding it, moved to the second reading, which you call artificial. Artificial it is, but not as artificial as your reading to my mind! So we may have to agree to disagree about this. (Of course, there’s the fact that h.d. was an American and so am I, which may or may not be relevant.) I add that I think you can’t read that much into a poet’s use of punctuation, which may be very idiosyncratic.
    By saying that whoever is firmly singular, I mean that the first useless-sentence cannot be paraphrased (on the second reading) as Useless to me [are] whoever plant etc., because whoever must mean ‘that who’, not ‘those who’ in such a situation, leading to yet another clash of agreement.
    3+4. Again, disagreement may be unavoidable. I think the starred forms in Zwicky 2007 are as impossible as he does, as impossible as Me saw she. English is full of ugly little facts about what works and what doesn’t work that are the despair of systematizers and the delight of people who, like me, enjoy contemplating the details of complicated domains. See Geoff Pullum’s delightful (to me) paper, The Truth About English: Rarely Pure and Never Simple”, notably the table in 2.1 about which wh-words can be used in which functions.

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  25. John Cowan, I am especially surprised at this:

    You write as an example me who am on a plinth, but for me that would have to be me who is on a plinth, not merely as a stylistic choice.

    I think that reflects an unusual take on what is “grammatical”, and I can give you many examples. These include:
    * Shakespeare (“taking their leaves of me / Who am prepar’d against your territories”)
    * Sheridan (“but to attack me, who am really so innocent”)
    * Boswell, quoting Garrick (“He consulted me upon it, who am a little of an epigrammatist myself, you know.”
    * Wilde (“And the mighty nations would have crowned me, / Who am crownless now and without name,”)
    * Burke (“to me, who am just a plain man”)
    * Coleridge (“And will your mother pity me, / Who am a maiden most forlorn?”)
    * Dickens (“for me, who am so poor in all in which you are so rich”)
    * Fielding (“do tell me, who thy friend”)
    * Haggard (“let me, who am but a child in wisdom”; “not to me, who dead”)
    * Hardy (“you bear with me, who am in truth a drag upon you”)
    * Kipling (“to me, who am this Holy One’s disciple”)
    * Bible, KJV (“Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints”)
    Examples with “I who am” are of course abundant, but equally to be accommodated in any full account of what is “grammatical”. Now some that are more complex, and of clear relevance:
    * Bulwer-Lytton:
    it is mine, who am their creature
    * Dickinson:
    ‘T is little I could care for pearls
      Who own the ample sea;
    Or brooches, when the Emperor
      With rubies pelteth me;
    Or gold, who am the Prince of Mines;
      Or diamonds, when I see
    A diadem to fit a dome
      Continual crowning me.
    * Fielding:
    Nay, I must confess, that even I myself, who am not remarkably liable to be captivated with show, …
    * Haggard:
    Give me no thanks, who am made happy by thy coming.
    * Kipling:
    Now do you, who are children, know as much as I do who am old?
    * Milton:
    What thinkst thou then of mee, and this my State,
    Seem I to thee sufficiently possest
    Of happiness, or not? who am alone
    From all Eternitie, for none I know
    Second to mee or like, equal much less.
    * Poe:
    I heed not that the desolate
      Are happier, sweet, than I,
    But that you meddle with my fate
      Who am a passer by.
    * Bible, KJV:
    The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: …
    * Shakespeare:
    Our men be vanquish’d ere they do resist,
    And subjects punish’d that ne’er thought offence;
    Which care of them, not pity of myself-
    Who am no more but as the tops of trees
    Which fence the roots they grow by and defend them-
    Makes both my body pine and soul to languish,
    And punish that before that he would punish.

    Old lord, I cannot blame thee,
    Who am myself attach’d with weariness
    To th’ dulling of my spirits; …
    * Mary Shelley:
    All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!
    * Twain:
    ‘Twould be a shame in me to hurt the helpless, who am myself so helpless.
    So John, I look forward to seeing evidence that your own take on what is “grammatical” is shared by a wide range of established writers. Neither Doolittle nor I would write anything of the form me who is on a plinth. Show me who would, in traditionally published work. And if you find is “grammatical” in that, tell me: do you also find has grammatical in this: “me who has my feet upon a plinth”? You would have to for consistency, right? And I think you would not accept “I who has my feet upon a plinth”. Hmmm? Your full account, please. With no talk of subjunctives, which are not relevant.
    No more for now. In my part of Australia there is an unprecedented flood crisis, dwarfing the trouble we had in 2010. I’m all right (the flood waters once again reached within centimetres of my floor level, and receded). But things are in turmoil all around, and the worst is still unfolding in nearby large towns. An anxious time; and I have travel ahead of me once again, when everything is secured here.

  26. Noetica: I hope things grow better, or at least no worse.
    I think I was very careful (and if not, please take the intention for the deed) to speak of what was grammatical for me. I accept, of course, that in the total range of English me who am is grammatical; it’s simply that I can’t speak it or write it, similarly to the England are defeated regularly example further up-thread; I cannot, I will not utter it. I think I first realized this as a teenager on reading the New English Bible’s translation of 2 Esdras 3:1, which begins: “In the thirtieth year after the fall of Jerusalem, I, Salathiel (who am also Ezra), was in Babylon.” I thought it was a printing error, but it is not.
    Unfortunately, searching for me who is in Google Books is a mug’s game, because so many uses involve me as either indirect or prepositional object, something like George Sand’s “In the name of Heaven, sir, tell me who is this man?” from The Countess of Rudolstadt.
    But as for me who has, of course not: that is a clash of number/person, as has can only be 3sg. It has to be me who have my feet on a plinth. The problem arises solely with be.

  27. Arrgh. Make that 1 Esdras.

  28. No, 2 Esdras is correct. 1 Esdras 3 begins “Now when Darius reigned, he made a great feast unto all his subjects, and unto all his household, and unto all the princes of Media and Persia” (KJV). 1 Esdras (or 3 Esdras to the Catholics) is just a copy of the book of Ezra (1 Esdras to the Catholics) with the last two chapters of 2 Chronicles prefixed, a chunk of Nehemiah (not from the beginning) postfixed, and an interpolation (which makes the story more symmetrical) after book 4 of Ezra. The verse numbering is quite different, however.

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